Research conducted by three UK universities shows that 60% of football referees questioned experience abuse every couple of games with one in five facing physical abuse.

The study, carried out by Edge Hill, Loughborough and Portsmouth Universities questioned referees about their experiences following the introduction of the Respect programme by the English Football Association (FA).

Of the 2056 referees questioned, including 370 under 14-17 year olds, over 22% said they suffered abuse every game.

They reported abusive behaviour from parents, spectators and coaches making them feel anxious and vulnerable leaving them fearing physical harm.

The majority also said they regularly questioned their motivation to continue.

Between 2007/2008 and 2008/2009 seasons, 17% of registered referees stopped officiating including a large proportion of 14 to 18-year-old referees.

The Respect programme was implemented in 2008 by the English FA due to increasing numbers of referees leaving the game as a result of poor behaviour by players, coaches, spectators and parents.

Jimmy O’Gorman

Jimmy O’Gorman from Edge Hill University, who co-wrote the study, said:

Through the online questionnaire we asked three questions; one about their experience of officiating since the introduction of the Respect programme, the extent to which they had been verbally and/or physically abused and lastly the level of support provided by the National and County FAs.

“While 54% said the Respect campaign had been somewhat successful there were some consistent themes. The behaviour of parents at grassroots level and their competitive nature was viewed as a significant problem by a number of young referees.

“Many commented on how the leniency shown on offensive or abusive language and/or gestures at elite level had negative consequences for grassroots referees, through the assumption that it’s acceptable to verbally abuse the referee.

“They also called for the FAs to be more consistent in dealing with the misconduct of clubs and players and for better support for referees who make complaints.”

The study concludes that the top-down focus from the National FA isn’t influencing bottom-up behaviour change at grassroots level to the desired extent and that inconsistently applied punishments (such as fines and the suspensions of clubs) isn’t deterring the abuse of referees.

Jimmy added: “Despite a media campaign aimed at respect there are evidently continuing problems and there is a need for engagement with referees, players, parents and coaches to improve things.

“The results of our research suggest concerns about consistency in implementing the existing policy. Many of the referees called for a re-evaluation of Respect and given recent news items it appears this may be happening.”

The full report by Jamie Cleland of Loughborough University, Jimmy O’Gorman of Edge Hill University and Tom Webb of the University of Portsmouth is soon to be published in the International Review for the Sociology of Sport, and will be available on the journal’s website.